I suspect there are hundreds of physics classrooms across the country that have the following poster:
This is the CENCO (Central Scientific Company) poster of the famous 1927 Solvay Conference. I’ve been to at least three universities that have this thing on the wall, including my own institution, Western Carolina University, and my alma mater, Wake Forest University. Strangely, I can’t date the poster, although if you read the descriptions of the 1927 Solvay attendees, the poster lists Dirac as being dead and De Broglie as being alive. Ergo, the posters were printed some time between 1984 and 1987. I suppose CENCO gave the posters away for free as a promotional during the Reagan administration, and I’d guess most of those freebies are still hanging on the wall today. (Physicists don’t update their décor very often.)
I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking at this poster (sometimes, the life of a lab instructor is dreary). And, in all my time staring at these giants of modern physics, I’ve formulated one burning question:
Which of these people was the dumbest?
[Note: I used this site for a listing of the attendees in the famous photo]
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not claiming anyone in the poster is dumb per se. And I would never compare myself to anyone on the list. But logic dictates that one of the people here was literally the dumbest attendee; I feel a moral obligation to identify this person for posterity.
Most of the names on the poster are familiar to physicists, and most of the attendees are therefore out of the running. No one would ever seriously consider Einstein, Curie, Dirac, Bohr, etc. as being the “dumbest.” On the other hand, some of the physicists aren’t so familiar, but they were obviously talented: Guye wrote over 200 papers; Knudsen had a bunch of crap named after him (Knudsen cell, Knudsen flow, Knudsen number, Knudsen layer and Knudsen gases). Piccard and Langmuir fall into this category as well.
And then there are the scrubs flanking Ehrenfest,
and the scrubs flanking Schrödinger,
These scrubs are so scrubby that the CENCO poster doesn’t even talk about them.
Surely one of these fools was the dumbest?
Let’s take them in order. Henriot was a chemist, so that’s a strike against him; he discovered that potassium is naturally radioactive, which is cool I guess, and figured out a way to make tops spin at high speeds. Woop-de-do. Herzen was a friend of Ernest Solvay, but didn’t really do anything else of note; I think we know how Herzen got an invite to the conference, don’t we?
Being a mathematician, de Donder probably gets a pass: he also wrote a shitload of books. The final scrub, Verschaffelt, is notable as having the shortest Wikipedia article of any Solvay attendee. Basically, all I can find out about him was that he was a physicist. Period.
Before we decide between Herzen and Verschaffelt, we should mention two other physicists in the poster. Compton once said, “the supernatural is as real as the natural world of Science,” so I’m tempted to list Compton amongst the scrubs. Anyone with so much woo in his veins can’t be listed amongst the top tier of physicists. Compton did win a Nobel prize though, and he was American…we have to disqualify him, then. America, fuck yeah! That leaves Ehrenfest, who was by all accounts a clever guy. But come on, the guy shot his own son and then killed himself. That’s hard to get past. I guess we’ll chalk that up to mental illness, not stupidity, but no one is ever going to make an Ehrenfest action figure.
So who was dumber, Herzen or Verschaffelt?
Herzen wrote a book or two, and supposedly played a “leading role” in physics and chemistry. So I’ll give him the nod over Verschaffelt. Thus we can tentatively say:
Verschaffelt was the dumbest attendee of the 1927 Solvay Conference.